restricted access The Kunar Nine
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The Kunar Nine

Every morning in winter, Hemad Khan and a handful of other boys from Nangalam would attend their lessons at the village madrassa, then strike out to collect firewood for cooking and for heating their homes. Cooking fuel is a rare and expensive luxury in Nangalam, a rocky hamlet in Kunar Province’s Pech Valley, astride Afghanistan’s mountainous eastern border with Pakistan. In the bitter winter months, the boys’ morning chore was their small way of helping their families through to spring. On the morning of March 1, 2011, some time before eight o’clock, the boys set off on their daily trudge up shepherds’ trails into the wooded hills south of the village. Rain clouds blanketed the valley. Hemad, bundled in sweaters and a winter coat against the damp chill, carried a small axe and a length of twine.

Hemad and his friends hiked for an hour before they found a suitable copse of cedars and got down to chopping and tying bundles of wood. Patches of snow lingered in the shadows behind the boulders, but winter was almost over. In a few weeks, snowmelt and warming air would spread a carpet of green across the valley, speckled with candy-pink poppy blossoms. The boys would shed their coats and sweaters and ditch their socks and shoes for open-toed sandals. They’d spend their days swimming and napping by the river, instead of slogging up and down the spurs and draws of the Hindu Kush.

For now, the valley was a monochromatic wash of dun-colored hills and mud-and-stone houses. On a clearer day the boys might’ve been able to see the glaciated 25,289-foot peak of Tirich Mir dominating the eastern horizon, but on that particular day, they were hemmed in by fog. At least the work kept the boys warm, and it was peaceful up there in the mountains. Hemad listened contentedly as his friends bantered to the steady thwacks of their hatchets. After a while, Hemad noticed a new sound, rising gradually until it drowned out the boys entirely. There was no [End Page 13] doubt in Hemad’s mind as to the source of the sound. It had become as familiar to him as all the other sounds of the valley—braying donkeys and bleating sheep, the muezzin’s mournful wail, the crack of gunfire. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when two gunships emerged from the fog, one of the birds scudding low over the treetops while the other hovered high above.

“It was like a giant monster,” Hemad Khan remembered, four months later, perched on the edge of a bed in a boiling Jalalabad hotel room. I would’ve preferred to have met him in Nangalam, or at least in Asadabad, the capital of Kunar, but traveling there by road without an armed escort would’ve been suicidal. Instead, I offered Hemad, his father Sher Khan, and another villager named Mohammad Bismil roundtrip bus fare to make the five-hour trip south to Jalalabad. Before the interview, we’d eaten lunch at a western-style fast-food joint in the bazaar called Chef Burger. Bismil assured me that the three of them had been to Jalalabad many times, but when the food arrived—pizzas and chicken shwarmas—Hemad looked dumbfounded. He sat sideways on the edge of his chair, fumbling with his silverware.

As we had piled into the car after lunch, a convoy of US Army vehicles was making its way through the traffic-choked street. Beige wreckers towed American vehicles mangled by improvised explosive devices, ieds. Bismil and Sher Khan hadn’t seemed to notice the trucks or the armor-clad soldiers scanning the streets from their turrets. Hemad had locked onto them. He had craned his head over the back seat, fixing the trucks in his gaze until they disappeared.

When he began to describe what happened next on that cold March morning, his shyness gave way to an expressive face, suntanned and wrinkled around the eyes.

“I screamed to my friends, ‘They’ll kill us!’”

One of his buddies laughed. “No problem,” the boy blustered...